The message is loud and clear that a majority plant-based diet is a route to health and fitness, but turning that knowledge into practice is where the industry is faltering. The answer could lie in taking an entirely new approach to mealtimes
Has there ever been a time when information on healthy eating has been so abundant and accessible? From articles in traditional print media, to the bloggers, Instagram feeds, and digital sites that delight in sharing the message that eating plenty of fruit and vegetables is the optimum way to fight disease and stay fit.
Yet, for the fresh produce industry it can feel like an uphill struggle to sell its wares in a marketplace where the competition is sugar and salt-laden products. The challenges of changing people’s eating patterns drives the work of Herman Peppelenbos, programme manager for customised food at Wageningen University & Research (WUR).
Peppelenbos specialises in consumer-driven product development, with a strong focus on healthy and sustainable food. “My interest in this research comes from my background as a biologist, I worked for many years in the post-harvest world where there have been many improvements,” he explains.
“From there I started asking questions about the nutritional value of food, and again we have seen a lot of gains. So we see the quality of food is good, the nutrition is good, but people still don’t eat it. Why?”
That is indeed the million-dollar question for the industry, and one that will be continuously discussed during The Amsterdam Produce Show and Conference. How to reach consumers and steer them away from the biscuits and over to the apples as they sail along the supermarket aisles?
Peppelenbos and his team at Wageningen University & Research have been dedicating their time to talking to those very consumers, attempting to understand their needs and meal requirements.
“What we found is that people, especially those under 30, only see vegetables as something to eat at dinner, and even then they don’t find them convenient to prepare, and it’s a product that’s easy to spoil in the cooking process,” he says. “They tend to look at vegetables as something necessary, but not very nice.”
This mirrors similar findings in wider European research, but Peppelenbos says that still the commercial market is not stepping up to create the type of products that not just consumers, but caterers also want.
“We need new concepts for different eating moments,” he adds.“For example, at day-care centres children are given fruit in the morning, but in the afternoon its biscuits or bread. Why not a portion of vegetables? The parents want it; the staff want it but they don’t have time to prepare such meals. If a producer could come up with a product that fits these requirements, then there’s a new market.
“It is the same for high school, where sometimes it’s a vegetable desert, the children said they wanted healthy food but it has to be €1 or under, again this is a huge market.”
When it comes to persuading adults to eat healthily, Peppelenbos says the restaurant and catering trade could do more to encourage customers to increase their portions of fruit and vegetables.
In one research situation the team worked with office catering managers to replace the standard plate of biscuits provided at meetings with one that was filled with snack vegetables, such as small tomatoes and cucumbers.
“We didn’t say a word, we just wanted to see what would happen, and each time the people at the meetings consumed 70 to 100g of vegetables per meeting, per person,” he says with a grin.
“So we proved to caterers that people will eat such food, it won’t go to waste, but there needs to be more variation in these vegetable snacks.”
Variation, convenience, and innovation are the words that Peppelenbos uses frequently, having spent three years gathering information from the end users of fresh produce. However, sometimes, he says, you don’t need to discuss changes with consumers.
“We worked with a large chain of restaurants in the Netherlands that are well known for huge portions of meat,” he says.
“Something like 200g of meat, which is a lot. So we suggested they trial serving slightly less, 170g, but also double the amount of vegetables on the plate. Did their customers notice? No, they finished their food and reported back that they were satisfied.
“For the restaurant this meant the cost of each plate went down, as meat is more expensive, so its profits went up, and no one noticed the difference.”
It is this lateral thinking around serving fresh produce that Peppelenbos wants to encourage more. Although his strongest piece of advice is that companies don’t just brain storm around a desk, that they conduct research in real life.
“We need to look at the real eating behaviour,” he enthuses. “When you do that, there are a lot of opportunities for people with the right products.”
With not just profits, but national health at stake, it’s a message the food industry will hopefully take onboard.
Herman Peppelenbos will be speaking about The glass half full approach to low fresh produce consumption in a session sponsored by supply-chain software specialist Prophet as part of the seminar programme on November 3 at The Amsterdam Produce Show and Conference. Don’t miss out! Register online now. Or contact us here to book a booth.